Was the U.S. government involved in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King?
His wife, Coretta Scott King, believed so.
A sniper’s bullet tore through King’s face as he stood on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. He was in Memphis to support the strike of local sanitation workers.
A man named James Earl Ray of Illinois was hunted down and arrested in June. He was on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list before the assassination, having escaped from a Missouri prison in 1967. Ray got a room at a boarding house (the shot’s origin) near King’s motel on the day of the killing, witnesses saw him running from the location, and investigators said his fingerprints were found on the rifle used to kill the civil rights leader.
Ray pleaded guilty, avoiding the death penalty. Yet he almost immediately recanted his plea, claiming he was framed, and spent the rest of his life fighting for a new trial. He later had help from the King family. In 1977, they met publicly with Ray and began to push for the investigation to be reopened.
(Only a year later, the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that it was likely Ray killed King as part of a conspiracy, but not one involving local or federal authorities.)
Though Ray died in prison in April 1998, a civil court jury in Memphis (made up of 6 blacks and 6 whites) ruled on December 8, 1999 (King v. Jowers) that the U.S. government was complicit in the killing of King.
In 1993, Lloyd Jowers, the owner of a restaurant below the boarding house where Ray stayed, claimed he had been paid by the Mafia to hire a Memphis policeman to kill King — he didn’t hire Ray. 4 weeks of testimony from 70 witnesses convinced a jury that Ray was not the one who killed King. Details and transcripts of the trial can be found at The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change website.
Coretta Scott King, on whose behalf the civil lawsuit was filed against Jowers, declared after the verdict,
The civil court’s unanimous verdict has validated our belief… The Mafia, local, state and federal government agencies were deeply involved in the assassination of my husband.
Dr. King’s son, Dexter, said:
It’s been painful and also has been bittersweet. Bitter because of the tragedy, obviously, but liberating in the sense and sweet that we have been vindicated and ultimately that the significant of this historical verdict that really rewrites history is liberating. Now we can move on with our lives, have a sense of closure and healing.
The New York Times reported that
One juror, David Morphy, said after the trial, ”We all thought it was a cut and dried case with the evidence that Mr. Pepper brought to us, that there were a lot of people involved, everyone from the C.I.A., military involvement, and Jowers was involved.”
Those who agreed with him wondered why a convict on the run would commit so serious a crime, or if government complicity was necessarily out of character during the civil rights era. For instance, the FBI worked with the Chicago police to assassinate Fred Hampton of the Black Panther Party, and in general worked to undermine and destroy civil rights groups. The FBI “tapped [King’s] private phone conversations, sent him fake letters, threatened him, blackmailed him, and even suggested once in an anonymous letter that he commit suicide. FBI internal memos discussed finding a black leader to replace King. As a Senate report on the FBI said in 1976, the FBI tried ‘to destroy Dr. Martin Luther King’” (see Zinn, A People’s History of the United States).
The King family lawyer argued King was a special target for his fierce opposition to the Vietnam War and the Poor People’s March on Washington he was planning, which would push for massive redistributions of wealth and political power. According to Probe Magazine,
James Lawson, King’s friend and an organizer with SCLC, testified that King’s stands on Vietnam and the Poor People’s Campaign had created enemies in Washington. He said King’s speech at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, which condemned the Vietnam War and identified the U.S. government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” provoked intense hostility in the White House and FBI.
Hatred and fear of King deepened, Lawson said, in response to his plan to hold the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. King wanted to shut down the nation’s capital in the spring of 1968 through massive civil disobedience until the government agreed to abolish poverty. King saw the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike as the beginning of a nonviolent revolution that would redistribute income.
“I have no doubt,” Lawson said, “that the government viewed all this seriously enough to plan his assassination.”
However, the Department of Justice issued a report calling the trial a sham, insisting no further investigation of the assassination was necessary. It can be found at the Department of Justice website. The Department wrote:
The evidence introduced in King v. Jowers to support various conspiracy allegations consisted of either inaccurate and incomplete information or unsubstantiated conjecture, supplied most often by sources, many unnamed, who did not testify. Important information from the historical record and our investigation contradicts and undermines it. When considered in light of all other available relevant facts, the trial’s evidence fails to establish the existence of any conspiracy to kill Dr. King. The verdict presented by the parties and adopted by the jury is incompatible with the weight of all relevant information, much of which the jury never heard.
Jowers’ testimony was doubted:
Jowers…has never made his conspiracy claims under oath… In fact, he did not testify in King v. Jowers, despite the fact that he was the party being sued. The one time Jowers did testify under oath about his allegations in an earlier civil suit, Ray v. Jowers, he repudiated them. Further, he has also renounced his confessions in certain private conversations without his attorney… For example, in an impromptu, recorded conversation with a state investigator, Jowers characterized a central feature of his story — that someone besides Ray shot Dr. King with a rifle other than the one recovered at the crime scene — as “bullshit.”
The assistant district attorney of Memphis, John Campbell, who was involved in the earlier criminal proceedings against Ray, said, “‘I’m not surprised by the verdict. This case overlooked so much contradictory evidence that never was presented, what other option did the jury have but to accept [the King family lawyer’s] version?” The New York Times wrote in 2000, “Mr. Campbell has quoted several of Mr. Jowers’ associates as saying he hoped to get a movie or book deal.” Two associates recanted their corroboration of his story and said Jowers made everything up for profit.
But like the King family, others still suspect government involvement. Jesse Jackson, who was with King when he died, told Democracy Now:
The fact is there were saboteurs to disrupt the march. But then our own organization, we found a very key person who was on the government payroll. So infiltration within, saboteurs from without and the press attacks… I will never believe that James Earl Ray had the motive, the money and the mobility to have done it himself. Our government was very involved in setting the stage for and I think the escape route for James Earl Ray. A very painful day.
Just after the Memphis trial, a former FBI agent claimed to have found evidence supporting Jowers’ story in Ray’s car right after the assassination (a claim the Justice Department also disputes), and that he was harassed by the FBI after finally speaking up about it. The agent said he had stayed quiet to protect himself:
I knew that the FBI would go to any lengths to accomplish its ends: assassination, murder, anything. But after I saw Coretta King on television talking so passionately about finding the truth, I decided to step forward.
In 2002, Minister Ronald Wilson in Gainesville, Florida said his father, Henry Clay Wilson, had killed Dr. King. The King family lawyer said
he had been contacted by many people making claims similar to [Ronald] Wilson’s but had discounted most as having no value. ”I have heard from Reverend Wilson over the last couple of years or more but have never seen any hard evidence to justify the allegations now being made.”